Workplace democracy is a training ground for true national democracy.
Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong
But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long
You get shorter hours, better working conditions
Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore-
-Pete Seeger, Talking Union Blues
For years — decades — unions seemed like a relic, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. American union participation nosedived in the Reagan years and continued to decline, year after year, with no bottom in sight.
Waves of strikes crisscrossed America: first teachers, then healthcare workers. Then unions began to pop up: Starbucks, online news sites, tech workplaces. Then, unions notorious for ossification and corruption underwent massive leadership shakeups: Teamsters, UAW.
And yet, amid the surge, there were setbacks and disappointments. The Amazon union won their vote in spite of the company’s all-out, money-is-no-object assault on its workers — but then, they couldn’t get a contract. Neither could those Starbucks baristas.
The bosses mobilized an army of high-priced white-shoe, anti-labor lawyers who found a million pretexts for fighting the union in courts, and sometimes they even won. It became increasingly clear that American labor law had been transformed into a tool for protecting capital from labor, rather than the other way around.
Is workplace democracy a lost art? Can the American worker even dream of a living wage, medical benefits, a decent retirement, family vacations and the right to a jobsite free from harassment, bullying and physical danger?
Jane McAlevey is a union organizer. She started her career as an environmental activist, and that’s how she found herself fighting alongside labor organizers who helped her understand that workers were the key to winning the environmental justice fights she was picking. That brought her into organizing, using methods developed in the early 20th century, refined and passed down from organizer to organizer, and then from organizers to worker leaders and the rank-and-file of countless fights for workplace democracy.
McAlevey’s methods date to a time before labor had any protections in US law: they were designed and perfected in an era when unionization was illegal, when bosses, courts and cops worked in concert to smash labor at the first sign of collective organizing.
The National Labor Relations Act and other labor protections arose after workers organized in the teeth of the law and the billyclubs and bristling guns of the cops and the bosses’ hired goons. Union organizing was invented for an era in which the deck was stacked against unions, and the NLRA and other legal protections came after successful labor campaigns.
That means that labor can win, even when the law is stacked against it.
“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Says Joe, “What they forgot to kill(3)
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize.”
-Alfred Hayes, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night
Workplace democracy isn’t a lost art. We may not know how the druids built Stonehenge, but we know how labor organizers won their strikes. Many of those organizers are alive today, as are their spiritual children — the organizers who learned their methods from their own mouths, or from the mouths of the workers who learned from them.
Organizers like McAlevey. In 2021, she published A Collective Bargain:
Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, an extraordinary book that is one part history lesson, one part case-study, two parts how-to manual, one part memoir, and one million parts call to action.
A Collective Bargain is a fantastic read. McAlevey devotes the early chapters to the rise and fall of labor protections in America, explaining how the wealthy mounted a sustained, expensive, obsessive fight to smash union power, from the post-war Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed sympathy strikes (imagine a law banning sympathy!), to globalization, to automation, to the gig economy.
Then, she moves into a series of case-studies of workers who tried to organize unions under these increasingly inhospitable rules and conditions, showing how the bosses had stacked the deck in their favor, and expertly dissecting the tactics used by union-busting “union avoidance consultants,” who charge bosses millions to help them avoid paying a living wage.
All of this sets the stage for the second half of the book: two case studies of mass strikes that succeeded in spite of even stiffer opposition: a nurse’s strike in Philadelphia, and the LA teachers’ strike.
Both of these are recounted with the narrative flair of a high-stakes thriller — and, of course, they are high-stakes thrillers, fights that are at once intensely personal and key to broad, societal struggles.
Each of these victories is the result of incredibly diligent, systematic organizing. McAlevey says that workers should not try to strike unless they are sure of ninety-five percent participation, a supermajority that seems impossible — until you learn how McAlevey and the workers she works for make it happen.
It’s a shoe-leather business: a series of person-to-person conversations, hard ones, with co-workers who are most hostile to unions, bringing along the community — parents and students, or patients and their families . It’s a a process that requires methodical record-keeping, diligent and regular communication, and person-to-person connections. Even a strike of hundreds of thousands of workers involves personal contact with each and every one of those workers, hearing their concerns, making them a part of the union conversation.
This all takes place against overwhelming and overpowering opposition: voter suppression, legal intimidation, divide-and-conquer campaigns, and a torrent of disinformation, all delivered by some of the highest-paid consultants working in today’s corporate America.
This union maid was wise,
To the tricks of company spies,
She couldn’t be fooled by a company stool(2),
She’d always organize the guys.
She always got her way,
When she struck for better pay.
She’d show her card to the National Guard, And this is what she’d say.
-Woody Guthrie, Union Maid
Finally, McAlevey brings the book in for a fantastic landing by relating all of this to the state of American politics.
Because the tactics used to smash unions are the same tactics used to smash the political movement for equality and justice. From dirty-tricks campaigns to physical intimidation, injunctions to gerrymandering, infiltration to sabotage, the American right keeps political power the same way they keep workplace power.
Much of McAlevey’s book describes the fight for democracy within unions: fights to root out sexism and racism in unions to create the unity needed to win victories for all workers. Then there are the fights to oust corrupt leaders and replace them with fighters who’ll take on the bosses, rather than taking their sides. Bosses talk a lot about corrupt unions, but bosses love union corruption, because corrupt union leadership will sell out their members to feather their own nests.
McAlevey draws a very apt comparison from these corrupt unions to the Democratic party, whose big-money backers are often the same people fighting the unions whose struggles she relates.
Democratic leaders don’t want labor as their basis for support, because labor doesn’t go away after the election is won. Think of how Obama spun up a massive grassroots system to campaign for him in 2008 — and then literally shut off the server that the campaign used as soon as he took office, making sure that there would be no organized grassroots jostling his elbow as he cut deals to bail out the banks while embarked on an orgy of foreclosure and even outright theft of Americans’ homes.
By contrast, the LA teachers unions organized massive campaigns in the 2018 midterms that secured several swing-seats for the Democrats and won them the House — and then went on to organize a successful strike, and then stayed organized, demanding that the Members of Congress their members and supporters sent to DC to represent them actually stood up for working people, not wealthy donors.
Union organizers know how to win crooked elections that are stacked against them. Union organizers don’t call a union vote unless they’ve got supermajorities of 75 percent or more, because they go into the vote assuming that the bosses will pick off 20 percent of their supporters with gerrymandering (splitting up the bargaining unit), dirty tricks (disqualifying ballots), and disinformation (“captive audience” meetings).
That’s why bosses are so viciously, lavishly opposed to unions. That’s why they’re prepared to spend millions and millions of dollars to prevent a union from taking hold in their shop. The Koch Brothers, the DeVoses and Elon Musk know that unions are an existential threat to their power and influence.
If only the Democratic Party leadership would treat unions with the seriousness that billionaires do.
For McAlevey, saving America is just a scaled up version of the union organizer’s day-job. First, we fix the corrupt union, firing its sellout leaders and replacing them with fighters. Then, we organize supermajorities, person-to-person, in a methodical, organized fashion. Then we win votes, using those supermajorities to overpower the dirty tricks that rig the elections against us. Then we stay activated, because winning the vote is just the start of the fight.
It’s a far cry from the Democratic Party consultant’s “data-driven” microtargeting strategy based on eking out tiny, fragile majorities with Facebook ads. That’s a strategy that fails in the face of even a small and disorganized voter-suppression campaign — it it’s doomed in today’s all-out assault on fair elections.
What’s more, the consultants’ microtargeting strategy treats people as if the only thing they have to contribute is casting a ballot every couple years. A sleeping electorate will never win the fights that matter — the fight to save our planet, and to abolish billionaires.
I found out about McAlevey and her work after her excellent appearance on Adam “Ruins Everything” Conover’s Factually podcast:
She was promoting a new book, Rules to Win By, which I’ve also added to my to-be-read pile.
I read A Collective Bargain on audiobook (I got a DRM-free version on Libro.fm). McAlevey narrates her own book, and does such a good job of it that she convinced me to narrate my own next book, a nonfiction book on smashing Big Tech power from Verso called The Internet Con. I’m going into the studio in early July to record it, and I’ll be channeling her excellent narration.